If COVID-19 can be remembered one day for anything other than death and devastation and joblessness and heartbreak, maybe Niko Lalos can remember it as an unlikely bridge to reconciliation with the father who couldn’t be there for him growing up.
Lalos, an only child, grew up with his NFL dream. His mother Leslie was a teacher for 33 years, who sacrificed so much for him on his path to Dartmouth College and who means the world to him — and now to the New York Football Giants. As a 6-foot-5, 270-pound rookie free-agent defensive end living his dream, Lalos is loving Joe Judge’s land of opportunity, happily carrying a banner for the Ivy League.
Lalos, 23, graduated in March with a degree in economics, then the pandemic struck.
That is when Lalos called his father, Tim Witkowski.
Suddenly, at a time when his mother had to be with her cancer-stricken mom in Florida, the father was alongside his son, the two of them pushing this improbable NFL dream together.
“They did football stuff together and Niko told him, ‘If you continue to help me and come around,’ ” Dartmouth assistant coach/defensive line coach Duane Brooks told The Post, ‘ “I’ll let you back in my life.’ ”
Witkowski is a farmer in Valley City, Ohio.
“Over the summer, his father was unemployed, so he was able to be with Niko for training,” Leslie Lalos told The Post. “He would go to the football field at 6 o’clock and meet Niko, and he would run the drills with Niko. So Niko would do the defense and his dad would do the offense. His dad played college football also.
“So he came back at the perfect time. He was there for Niko when it really counted. And he had been in and out of his life. … His dad was a farmer, and he never really had time for him growing up. We just lived our life, and it’s not like he had any animosity or anything like that, it was just he wasn’t available.
“And then, all of a sudden, this summer came and COVID came, as unlikely as it would be, he didn’t have a job and he was able to be there for Niko when it counted the most.”’
Niki’s parents never married. They split up when Niko was 8 or 9 years old.
“He just couldn’t play the part of a financially stable person that could raise a son,” Leslie said, “So we went on about our life without him, and anytime he had time, he would call and Niko would go and meet him for dinner. So they’ve had an ongoing relationship, it just wasn’t very consistent.”
Brooks has been a father figure for Niko.
“Growing up in a single-parent household for most of my life,” Niko said, “you just kind of miss out on certain things growing up and life lessons and stuff like that. He was just someone that was there for me and kind of helped grow up and mature through my college years as a man.”
Niko had spoken to Brooks over the years about his father.
“He kind of had a similar situation where he was really close with his mom,” Niko said. “‘And I would always ask him, ‘Did you ever like talk to your dad or like straighten things out, kind of like try and fix that relationship?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah. My advice is: The earlier you do it and kind of reconcile that, you’ll feel more at peace with yourself.’”
Then fate decided there was no more need for a son and father to quarantine from one another, even during a pandemic.
“When I was back home during quarantine trying to work out, I reached out to him and asked if he could kind of hold the stopwatch and throw me the football on different drills during my conditioning as I was preparing to arrive for camp,” Niko said. “So he’d show up around 5 or 6 in the morning, and he would just kind of hold the stopwatch and make sure I was meeting all my requirements.”
It was a start.
“Every few months he’d kind of like reach out, see how I was doing, how school was going and how football or basketball was going, whatever was going on in my life,” Niko said. “And then, once I got to college, every time maybe I came back home, I’d maybe grab a bite maybe a couple of times a year or so, depending on how busy I was,” Niko said. “But more recently, it’d be like almost on an everyday basis.”
Niko wonders whether it was bound to happen.
“Kind of like the advice that Coach Brooks gave me, it was kind of bound to happen eventually,” Niko said. “I guess you could say COVID-19 gave it the opportunity.”
His father wasn’t there when Niko wore to school a “Giants Rule Patriots Drool” white, cotton T-shirt he made following Super Bowl XLII. He wasn’t there when Niko’s NFL dream began at age 5. Wasn’t there when he fawned over Eli Manning and Michael Strahan.
“I think anyone, given adversity, can be, especially when you’re young and naive, can be bitter and frustrated about stuff like that. I imagine I was,” Niko said, “but specific examples I probably couldn’t give you.”
Broken relationships don’t heal overnight. But at least now there is hope.
“Just kind of laying some foundation or groundwork,” Niko said, “to kind of maybe have a relationship down the road.”
The road not taken, for too long.
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